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Why MECQ? Phl Can No Longer Afford A Lockdown; Cases May Reach More Than 200,000 Under GCQ

Why MECQ? Phl Can No Longer Afford A Lockdown; Cases May Reach More Than 200,000 Under GCQ
Shoppers flock to a public market in Taytay, Rizal on Aug. 3, 2020 amid the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic. Photo by Michael Varcas, The Philippine STAR

The government can no longer afford to reimpose enhanced community quarantine or ECQ in Metro Manila as it does not have enough resources to provide food and financial aid to affected communities, President Duterte admitted on Sunday, Aug. 2.

The President approved the recommendation of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) to revert Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal to modified ECQ from general community quarantine or GCQ from Aug. 4 to 18 upon the request of the medical community, which sought a “timeout” from rising COVID-19 cases.

In an interview, Maricar Limpin, co-convenor of the Health Professionals Alliance against COVID-19, said MECQ is “a lot better than” GCQ as it would give the health workers and the government time to “rethink, to recalibrate the strategies to control COVID-19 infections.”

The decision was made in response to the call of the alliance, of more than 100 medical associations, to place Mega Manila, composed of Metro Manila, Central Luzon, Calabarzon and Mimaropa regions, under ECQ for two weeks.

In a letter to Duterte on Aug. 1, the Philippine College of Physicians said health workers are already “burned out” with the seemingly endless number of patients trooping to hospitals, and the two-week “timeout” could be used to refine the pandemic response.  As of Sunday, Aug. 2, more than 100 medical groups had supported the call.

The groups’ request was only granted partially as Metro Manila and the four provinces were placed only under MECQ rather than the strictest ECQ, wherein only essential sectors and selected businesses can operate. The decision also did not cover the entire Mega Manila.

“We are doing our very best and (we have the) localized lockdown. I’m sorry, Manila. Ngayon you may say, ‘place Manila under lockdown, also other places, the entire Philippines so nobody would catch the virus.’ The problem is we no longer have money,” Duterte said in a televised address.

“Problem is wala na tayong pera. I cannot give food anymore and money to people,” he added. “So that’s modified (ECQ) especially for critical industries. Food, number one, medicines... First, they have nothing to eat. Only a few people have savings good for... a rainy day? Well, our savings is just good for a drizzle."

Duterte stressed that quarantine measures should be strictly implemented at the local level to limit the movement of people.

“Now, also the barangay captains, it’s time that you really work. Bring back the honor given to you by the people. You work. Strictly enforce the quarantine, especially the lockdown,” the President said.

“It behooves upon the barangay captain, municipal mayor, to see to it that if possible, your barangay or munisipyo, city is COVID-free,” he added. “Some mayors are overly strict. We can’t do anything about that because under the Local Government Code, they ought to really also move.”

 Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the giving of financial aid to households affected by the implementation of MECQ lies with Congress.

 “Perhaps it will be included in the Bayanihan 2 (or the proposed Bayanihan to Recover as One Act 2) because the aid we distributed previously was in line with a law. According to the Constitution, we cannot spend government funds without legislation,” Roque noted.

 Roque expressed confidence that local governments are ready to provide assistance to their constituents who were sidelined by the lockdown.

 “We will look at the capability of DSWD to provide aid to the affected areas,” he said, referring to the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

 “Even before we made the decision on MECQ, we had a consultation with the Metro Manila mayors and they know our fund limitations. But everyone is ready to look for the funds... because while we are under MECQ, most of our countrymen cannot go to work,” he added.

 The government allotted more than P200 billion in emergency aid to displaced workers and poor households under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act.

 Will MECQ matter?

 According to Limpin and the Department of Health (DOH), the two-week MECQ is not expected to make a “dent” on the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

 “It will be impossible to attain that in two weeks’ time,” Limpin said.

 But Limpin said the period would allow the government to come up with “more comprehensive strategies,” particularly on improving contact tracing and addressing the shortage of health care workers.

 DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire also said the implementation of MECQ in Metro Manila and the provinces of Laguna, Cavite, Rizal and Bulacan was not really meant to flatten the COVID curve as it would hardly impact on the transmission of the disease in the country.

 “This is intended only to provide our health workers a breather and to be able to reorganize and to re-strategize and to strengthen what we have been doing to address this pandemic,” she noted.

 Vergeire said a strengthened response would allow the government to better manage cases in the future.

 She assured the public that the DOH would use the MECQ “well” by going down to the communities to help in implementing intervention measures against the virus.

 Under the plan, the DOH and the government agencies under the National Task Force Against COVID-19 will create “a rapid response team of trained medical workers” who can help prevent the health system in Metro Manila from being overrun.

 They will also work to grant the frontliners’ request for hazard pay as well as the provision of accommodation, transportation and personal protective equipment, and even psycho-social, emotional and mental support.

 Professor Ranjit Rye of the University of the Philippines OCTA research team said the number of COVID-19 infections would surge to 220,000 by the end of August if Metro Manila and nearby areas were not placed under a stricter community quarantine.

 “Our new forecast is 220,000 by the end of August if we are under GCQ. Now that we are under MECQ, we will save a little more than 50,000 new cases... The MECQ has a huge implication,” Rye said.

 “If we help each other – the people, the private sector, the government – and if we intensify T3, we can save more,” he added, referring to testing, tracing and treatment.

 Rye said the transmission rate or R0 stands at 1.5 and may fall to 1 after 15 days if the testing, tracing and treatment efforts are strengthened.

 “If there is cooperation with the private sector and civil society, no doubt it will fall to one and many would be saved from COVID-19 especially from mortality. We can also help our health workers who are facing difficulties now,” he stressed.

 Rye advised the public to stay home, practice physical distancing, wear masks and wash hands frequently to avoid catching the virus.